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Dozens of women have come forward with stories of being coerced into giving up their babies between the 1940s and 1980s.ROSEMARIE GEARHART

Their accounts sound like something out of The Handmaid's Tale: doctors forcibly tying women to their beds during labour; nurses refusing to let them hold their babies; social workers coercing them into signing adoption papers.

The allegations stretch as far back as the 1940s and are as recent as the 1980s. It was another era, when it was almost normal for a pregnant, unwed woman to be "sent away" to a religious maternity home, sheltered from social stigma. After giving birth, many chose to put their child up for adoption because it seemed the best option. But there is emerging evidence that some women may have been given no choice at all. They were coerced, they say, into giving up their babies. Some allege they were forced to sign adoption papers almost immediately after giving birth, their judgment clouded by drugs. Others say they were outright lied to: told their child was stillborn, when in fact, their baby was alive and well and adopted out to another family.

So far, about 500 women, adoptees and fathers have stepped forward. Their testimonies raise more questions than answers. Were large numbers of babies systematically taken away from their mothers? If so, who is to blame? And how much of what happened was simply a symptom of the times? These questions can only be properly answered by a federal inquiry, which is exactly what some of these women are demanding.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay's office has dismissed this as a matter for the provinces, as did his predecessor, Rob Nicholson. Health and family services are technically a provincial matter. But the scope and scale of the allegations are best met by a single, national response. That was the conclusion reached in Australia, where the federal government has no jurisdiction over adoption. There, state and territorial agencies presided over an estimated 250,000 forced adoptions between the 1930s and the 1980s. Those findings, from a comprehensive Senate inquiry, prompted an apology from then-prime minister Julia Gillard.

A class-action lawsuit in British Columbia accuses the province of abduction and fraud. Similar suits will likely be launched soon in other provinces. Three churches launched internal investigations. This constellation of overlapping inquiries only highlights the need for Ottawa to take the lead.

Several MPs have thrown their support behind the idea of a parliamentary study, but given the gravity of the allegations, that doesn't go far enough. Ottawa should investigate whether a large number of women were subjected to institutionalized cruelty, and coerced into making an irreversible and life-altering decision. This is not yet a closed chapter in Canada's history: The pain caused by coerced adoption has the potential to ripple across generations. These women – and their children – deserve credible answers.